A Doll’s House, Part 2, opens a troubling door
You’d be right in thinking this play’s name sounds familiar. Lucas Hnath’s 2017 Broadway hit, A Doll’s House, Part 2, is effectively a sequel to Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen’s 19th century masterpiece, A Doll’s House.
To understand the full context of A Doll’s House, Part 2, it’s worth looking at its prequel. Following its world premiere in 1879, A Doll’s House became highly successful and recognised for its originality and technical mastery – but it was also controversial, with the play’s themes remaining divisive to this day.
In A Doll’s House, the patriarchal constraints and domestic fate of an unhappy and unfulfilled married woman, Nora, are placed in the spotlight. The play follows Nora as she attempts to hide a secret from her husband Torvald – the fact that she borrowed money to pay for a trip they took to Italy for his health, saving his life – and culminates in her secret being exposed. This results in Torvald, enraged and fearful for his reputation as a bank manager, declaring Nora has ruined his life and that he will forsake her. He experiences a change of heart shortly afterwards; Nora, however, having seen her husband’s true character for the first time, realises she feels no love for him and no longer wishes to live as a passive, doll-like figure ‘owned’ by her husband. Leaving her keys and wedding ring, she walks on out her marriage, husband, and children, slamming the door behind her.
19th century audiences were shocked – and even today, the play possesses the power to spark debate and needle emotions. In A Doll’s House, Part 2, however, Nora comes back.
To be honest, I’m ambivalent about Hnath’s decision to check in on Nora and family 15 years (or 138 years, in real time) after the infamous slammed door. It’s sort of like the reaction one has upon encountering J K Rowling’s Twitter feed, or the ongoing tinkering with any drawn-out franchise. Can’t we just let a good thing be?, one asks somewhat petulantly. Does the story actually benefit from being revisited and expanded?
In the context of A Doll’s House, Part 2, this second question is an interesting one. The play sees Nora returning unexpectedly to her old home: she is now confident, sexually emancipated, and a successful feminist novelist. She has unfinished business with Torvald, however, because she has learnt that he never officially filed their divorce papers, meaning she – a woman who has made her living through writing about her divorce – in fact remains a married woman.
The Street Theatre did an excellent job of bringing this play to life. The set – a simple room – had chairs facing in every direction except towards one another: a strategic and unnerving decision, reflecting the conflict taking place on the stage. The colour of clothing and the backlighting of silhouetted images was used to represent different characters, their emotions, and their values. Sky blue, symbolising freedom, was used for Nora; red for Torvald and his anger and hurt; green for the nursemaid, Anne Marie, whose loyalty is infused with bitterness and, to some degree, envy; and yellow for Emmy, Nora and Torvald’s now adult daughter, who is a bright, golden girl who cannot wait to get married.
The cast was also strong, with Rachel Berger as Nora, PJ Williams as Torvald, Camilla Blunden as Anne Marie, and Lily Constantine as Emmy. Berger and Williams impressed through their ability to act characters whose emotions were often running extremely high, and to sustain this energy throughout the play. Constantine perfectly captured the arch façade of Emmy, a complex character with an intriguing set of insecurities it would have been interesting to see explored further through the script. She and Berger were highly convincing as mother-daughter verbal sparring partners. It was perhaps Camilla Blunden who stood out the most, for her brilliant embodiment of the Anne Marie character, whose distinctive physicality, mixed loyalties, and internal struggles offer potentially the most compelling and rich personality in the play.
Nevertheless, in spite of all these positive aspects, it was not an easy piece to watch. Each scene is dialogue-heavy and inherently argumentative, making it an emotionally laborious storyline, stressful for characters and audiences alike. This also led to the resolution of the play feeling abrupt and a little out of character. In short, the actors did well with the script, but I would like it to have explored a broader emotional spectrum.
Indeed, A Doll’s House, Part 2 may bring an incredibly successful premise back into the spotlight for a second dramatic and entertaining round, but I’m not sure its execution deepens the debate raised by the original. That 138 years passed between Ibsen and Hnath writing their respective plays is evident, and A Doll’s House, Part 2 is very much an exploration of modern concerns using contemporary language and terms in an old-fashioned setting. Hnath has his characters discuss a wide variety of issues, including gender equality, feminism, motherhood, class, opportunity cost, and responsibility to one’s children. They do so in an often didactic manner, however, not necessarily offering new perspectives within these existing debates. In this sense, A Doll’s House, Part 2 feels like a missed opportunity: the characters are back, but they remain mired in conflicts to which they offer little resolution.
Granted, it is noteworthy (not to mention frustrating) that the issues Hnath’s play explores are still as compelling and relevant today as they were in the 19th century original. Perhaps this parallel between then and now is even what compelled Hnath to write this play: to highlight how little some social issues have evolved. Credit can also be given to Hnath for elaborating on Ibsen’s preoccupations in a style and language that appeals directly to modern audiences.
Nevertheless, A Doll’s House, Part 2’s very existence can suggest discomfort with how Ibsen’s A Doll’s House ended – with a startling finality that was ultimately the whole point of the play. A Doll’s House never sought to address whether Nora has regrets or whether Torvald needs or deserves closure. By bringing Nora back for A Doll’s House, Part 2, Hnath is able to revisit compelling arguments through a modern lens, but in doing so he also lessens the impact of Ibsen’s original story. Hnath’s play seeks to reconcile Nora and Torvald before an eventual departure, having the pair both admit to wrongdoing. This narrative choice not only goes against past characterisation, but also suggests a story like A Doll’s House is incomplete. This insinuation is problematic, because while the characters in A Doll’s House could well grow beyond the story arc of the play and even develop regrets, there is also every chance that Nora could go on to live a happy and more emancipated life after leaving her marriage, barely giving Torvald or her children a second thought.
That is the challenge offered to audiences by Ibsen in the original play: the idea that Nora slamming the door behind her forever could be a happy ending – and a necessary ending – in and of itself.
Therefore, when Part 2 comes knocking, one can’t help but wonder – as with so many sequels – whether the door might have been better left closed.
Curious to open the door and see for yourself? A Doll’s House, Part 2 will be performed by the Melbourne Theatre Company at Southbank Theatre, Melbourne from 11 August to 19 September 2019. A Doll’s House, Part 2 previously ran from 15 June to 23 June 2019 at The Street Theatre, Canberra. Length: 90 mins, no interval.